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analysis

New Hampshire Republican U.S. Senate candidate Don Bolduc during a primary night campaign gathering on Sept. 13, in Hampton, N.H.Reba Saldanha/The Associated Press

With Tuesday’s conclusion of the 2022 U.S. midterm primary season, control of Congress now redounds to the machinations not only of an enraged former president, a reinvigorated sitting president and big-spending party and special-interest groups, but also a forgotten political figure who died 208 years ago.

His name was Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father and one-time vice-president born here 32 years before the American Revolution and still a presence in his hometown. His name is attached to a 115-year-old school now being converted into condos, to a street in Marblehead’s Old Town, to a park overlooking an Atlantic waterway, to a handtub (an early fire engine, now used in re-enactments of colonial firefighters’ musters) – and to an ancient practice employed in drawing legislative districts that was once common in Canada and still bedevils U.S. politics.

The gerrymander – properly pronounced with a hard “G,” like the word “gallery,” but popularly pronounced with a soft “G,” as in “general” – is the process of crafting the boundaries of electoral ridings to assure that one party has a substantial advantage. The term comes from Mr. Gerry’s success in transforming a Massachusetts legislative district into the shape of a mythical salamander – thus, “gerrymander” – and is an important factor in the campaigns now entering their final phase before the Nov. 8 election.

As a result, there are fewer competitive contests for the House of Representatives than there might be if congressional districts were shaped in more rational ways; indeed, political professionals believe there will be fewer close races than even two years ago. That likely won’t save the Democrats as they seek to defend their slender majority in the chamber amid a period of surging inflation. But it may serve to limit their losses in these contests in the first half of a presidential term – a time when the party holding the White House customarily loses seats. Since the end of the Second World War, the average loss by the party in power is about two dozen seats.

A study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law shows that just 6 per cent of seats in states where redistricting was controlled by Democrats are competitive this November. Though the Democrats still have a very narrow path to retaining control of the House, most experts believe the Republicans are poised to regain a House majority for the first time since early 2019.

As recently as midsummer, political professionals believed the Democrats could lose as many as 30 House seats. But the Supreme Court decision striking down abortion rights, and Donald Trump’s involvement in the midterm campaigns, have mobilized Democrats – perhaps enough to limit their losses to single digits. This has been accompanied by a fundamental shift in the Democrats’ fall campaign messaging. In normal midterm elections, voters’ decisions are viewed as a referendum on the sitting president, which would augur poorly for the Democrats, because Joe Biden’s approval rating is quite low; a Morning Consult poll recently pegged it at 46 per cent.

Now that the campaign is entering its denouement, the Democrats are trying to transform the election into a choice between their vision of American society and the vision implied by Mr. Trump’s profile and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Mississippi abortion case.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, who hold power in the 50-50 Senate by virtue of the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Kamala Harris, have a chance to defy conventional thought by picking up a seat or two and solidifying their majority.

Control of the two legislative chambers may be the main event in the midterm elections, but it is followed closely by political gauges of Mr. Trump’s power and of the Democrats’ unusual practice of pumping more than US$53-million into the campaigns of 13 Republican primary candidates with the least likelihood of prevailing in general elections. Many of these candidates are election deniers closely identified with, and in some cases endorsed by, Mr. Trump.

Two examples emerged Tuesday night from the last round of primaries.

In New Hampshire, Democratic money was a factor in the triumph of Republican Don Bolduc, who is now set to run against endangered Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan. Mr. Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier-general who described the GOP governor of his own state as “a Chinese Communist sympathizer,” prevailed in part with money provided by Democratic operatives who feared that his rival, State Senate President Chuck Morse, would be a more formidable candidate. Mr. Morse conceded early Wednesday morning. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York pumped US$3.2-million last week alone from the political action committee he controls into advertisements bolstering Mr. Bolduc, a candidate Mr. Trump described as having “said some great things.”

The same occurred in one of the state’s GOP congressional primaries, in the western part of New Hampshire, where Democratic Representative Annie Kuster is seeking her sixth term. The beneficiary of US$94,000 in Democratic spending was Robert Burns, the deputy treasurer of Hillsborough County, who prevailed over a more moderate Republican opponent.

“It’s difficult to see anything more hypocritical than arguing for good government and then spending money to improve the chances of far-right-wing Republicans because the Democrats think that they would be easier to beat in a general election,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a Colby College political scientist who was once a candidate in a Democratic House primary in Maine. “It might work in the short run, but in the long run it is destructive of the political process Democrats pretend to favour.”